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By 1993, Sylvester Stallone was one of the biggest stars on the planet, having already earned acclaim and fans worldwide for his roles in the Rocky and Rambo franchises. He’d also dabbled in some comedies, but it was always action that defined him best, and with Cliffhanger, he was given the chance to do something a bit different from the usual guns and punches (though there’s still plenty of it) in this smart, often unnerving thriller that is as effective now as it was more than twenty years ago.
THE STORY: Directed by Renny Harlin, Cliffhanger follows mountaineer and Ranger Gabriel “Gabe” Walker (Stallone) who, after an accident atop a huge cliff leaves him devastated, retires and tries to deal with the loss but becomes drawn back to the peaks when a small plane crash leaves a crew of thieves stranded and looking for three cases of money fallen from a botched mid-air transfer. Now he’s up against a mad man and his cronies searching for the cash and needs to call on an old friend turned enemy for help.
Filled with some breathtaking climbing sequences and some spectacular cinematography, what truly keeps the film so centered is the performances, with the story giving Stallone and co-stars Michael Rooker, Janine Turner, and John Lithgow, among other great supporting players, plenty of opportunities to ground this sky-high adventure. Stallone is especially good as a man tortured by his past and pushed to his limits as he’s forced to fight both man and nature to stay alive in the frigid Rockies.
What To Look For: While the characters lead the way, it’s Harlin’s great direction that deserves a closer look, able to give both awe-inspiring scale to the setting while still layering it tremendous claustrophobia. From a sensational mid-air stunt between two planes that set a world record to plenty of incredible mountaineering moments (with the Dolomites in Italy standing in for the Rockies), Harlin never lets up on the tension and finds ways to add one impressive climbing sequence after another, all of them extremely convincing, from a dizzying death-defying rope swing to an insane leap of faith.
A GREAT MOMENT: Cliffhanger has plenty of great moments, including almost any with Lithgow, who is simply delicious as a vindictive villain, but it’s the opening moment that seals the deal, a redefining teaser to what’s coming that has since become so iconic it’s been copied and parodied, including a great bit in the Ace Ventura sequel, When Nature Calls.
Not to spoil too much for those who have yet to see it, it’s begins with an attempted rescue of a couple that require some fancy wire work due to high winds that prevent using the helicopter and leaves Walker suspended 4,000 ft (1219m) in the air. A jaw-dropping moment that is both exhilarating and terrifying, it sets a terrific tone for the remainder of the film. Bye-bye plush toy.
THE TALLY: While a repeated view might reveal a few flaws, especially in some of the effects and a few choice, decidedly 90s cheesy one-liners, Cliffhanger is, nonetheless, a great throwback thriller that, in an age before CGI made everything possible, holds up really well, and features a rousing score by Trevor Jones. Arguably Stallone’s best none franchise action movie, it marks a peak in his career for such films, a turning point that had yet to see him fall into his latter more cartoonish fare. A classic that is a stunning directorial achievement, this is not to be missed. It’s what to watch.